An Interview With Romy Natalia Goldberg, Author Of ‘Other Places Travel Guide, Paraguay’

Since April, I’ve been writing about my adventures in Paraguay. Gadling sent me there for the exact reason most of you are reading this post: because few people, especially Norte Americanos, know anything about this mysterious country. The lack of guidebooks doesn’t do much to dispel the myth that Paraguay is a place not worth visiting or knowing about.

As it turned out, that line of thinking couldn’t be more flawed. Paraguay is one of the loveliest countries I’ve ever visited, both for it’s scenic beauty (think virgin rainforest; tropical farmland; dusty red roads; colonial (and colonial- and Baroque-style) architecture; Jesuit missions; a vibrant ranching culture; sleepy villages; the cosmopolitan capitol of Asunción), and the generosity of its people.

My companion in Paraguay – discovered online just days before I left – was the very excellent guidebook, “Other Places Travel Guide, Paraguay,” by Romy Natalia Goldberg, which came out in late 2012. This book saved my butt innumerable times, because Paraguay is a challenging country for visitors due to its lack of tourism infrastructure and remoteness.

In reading her book, which has plenty of historical and cultural background, I learned that Goldberg is the daughter of a Paraguayan mother and a North American father. She lives in Paraguay with her husband and two daughters, and maintains a travel blog, Discovering Paraguay.

Because it was Goldberg’s book that in part helped me to understand and fall in love with Paraguay, I wanted to share her insights with Gadling readers. Read on for her take on the country’s fledgling tourism industry, intriguing cuisine, and why you should visit … stat.

You currently live in Paraguay. Did you live there as a child?

My father worked for the U.S. Foreign Service, so I lived in several Latin American countries growing up, but never in Paraguay. I visited my family here frequently, however. I’ve been here for the past five years. At first I lived in Asunción, the capital city. About three years ago I moved to Piribebuy, my mother’s hometown. It’s the closest thing I ever had to a hometown growing up. Writing the guidebook was a great opportunity to get to know Paraguay on a deeper level.

Have you always been a writer or was your book inspired by your love of the country?

The idea to write a guidebook arose while I was planning a trip to Paraguay with my husband. There was so little information available at the time. No Lonely Planet [LP now has a bare bones section on Paraguay in its South America On A Shoestring, and a forthcoming dedicated guidebook] no travel blogs, nothing. I felt the need to create something that accurately depicted the country I knew and loved. Before this I had never even considered writing.

Well, you did a great job – your book was indispensable to me while I was there. I fell in love with the country for myriad reasons, which I’ve been chronicling on Gadling. What makes Paraguay so special to you?

To me the most fascinating thing about Paraguay is the strong presence of indigenous Guaraní culture in everyday life. The most visible example of this is the Guaraní language, which is widely spoken throughout all levels of Paraguayan society. You don’t have to go to a museum to learn about Guaraní culture, you can literally experience it just by interacting with regular Paraguayans.

Why do you feel the country isn’t a more popular tourist destination?

Traveling in Paraguay requires advanced planning as well as some legwork once you get here. Understandably, most tourists don’t want to work that hard while on vacation. But I think the biggest problem is that people simply aren’t aware of Paraguay and what it has to offer.

Do you see this changing in the near future? It seems as though the government is really working to promote it.

I do see a change. In fact, it’s not just the government. Now that Internet access is widely available here, it’s easier for the Paraguayan tourism industry to market itself to the outside world. Hopefully, they’ll figure out how to reach the type of tourists that will enjoy traveling in Paraguay.

I would characterize that genre of tourist as those who love adventure and getting off the tourist trail. Would you consider Paraguay a challenging country for tourists?

Being a tourist in Paraguay requires time and flexibility. This isn’t Disneyland. There are few English speakers, it’s hard to schedule an itinerary ahead of time, and travel within Paraguay is often delayed due to bad weather and road conditions. Of course, there are tourists who like a challenge. My goal in writing the guidebook was to help people overcome the challenges and make the most of traveling in Paraguay.

Would you like to see Paraguay become a major tourist destination? Or do you feel it would eventually change the character and culture of the country?

That’s a tough question. I would definitely like to see Paraguay become a better developed tourist destination, but not necessarily a major one. The reality is we’re surrounded by Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia, all of which are much more developed and established travel destinations. I think we’ll always appeal to a smaller subset of tourists.

Since few people are familiar with Paraguay, what would you tell readers who haven’t spent much time in South America/are leery of the political turmoil and crime often portrayed by the media (not to say things are or are not blown out of proportion)? I found Paraguay to be very safe; do you feel that it’s safer than other countries in South America?

In my experience, Paraguay is one of the safest countries in South America to be a tourist. The usual warnings about using common sense in crowded or touristy areas apply. But there’s no need to be on guard all the time, especially when you’re traveling in the countryside. If someone approaches you, it’s more likely out of curiosity and friendliness than a desire to do harm. As for what’s portrayed in the media, political turmoil and corruption do exist, but, to be honest, are unlikely to affect you as a tourist.

What’s your favorite thing about Paraguay?

The open, friendly attitude most Paraguayans have, even towards total strangers. Paraguayans are always up for a conversation, and they love talking about their country and culture with foreigners. There’s something about it that’s very refreshing, and I often hear from tourists who say these social interactions were the highlight if their visit to Paraguay.

I couldn’t agree with you more. I met so many wonderful people, and I’ve never experienced such cultural pride. It wasn’t boastful; it was sweet and genuine. But I have to ask: what’s your least favorite thing about the country?

It’s very hard to see so much unfulfilled potential. This is a country with a rich culture, friendly, outgoing people and beautiful landscapes. As my aunt likes to say, Paraguay still has a lot on its “to-do” list.

What’s your favorite destination in Paraguay?

I love Yataity del Guairá. It’s a small, peaceful town where people dedicate themselves to making and embroidering fine cotton cloth known as ao po’i. Some women even hand-spin raw cotton into thread and then weave it on a loom. It’s like stepping into a time machine. The New York Times‘ “Frugal Traveler” columnist Seth Kugel recently wrote a really great piece about traveling in that region of Paraguay.

I became obsessed with Paraguayan food, which I learned is a big part of the culture. What can you tell us about that?

Laurel Miller, Gadling

Here it’s all about comfort food. Hearty stews with noodles or rice, deep-fried treats like empanadas and fritters, and a ton of dishes made with corn flour, mandioca (cassava/yucca) and cheese. Chipa is the most ubiquitous; it’s a cheesy, bagel-shaped cornbread that was considered sacred by the Guaraní.

Why should readers consider a trip to Paraguay now (as opposed to, say, in five years)?

Even compared to a year ago, the tourism industry has gained momentum. There are more hostels, restaurants, and more information available in guidebooks and on travel websites. And American Airlines began a direct flight from Miami in November.

But Paraguay remains firmly off the beaten path, as you said. So people who enjoy under-the-radar destinations should come now. As for the future, a massive number of tourists will travel to Latin America for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. By then, there will hopefully be enough buzz around Paraguay that a significant portion of those tourists will come here as well.

A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Tribute To Slain Diplomat Anne Smedinghoff

The Foreign Service lost one of its own on Saturday when a suicide bomber detonated explosives that killed 25-year-old Foreign Service Officer Anne Smedinghoff and four other Americans, three soldiers and one civilian Department of Defense employee in Afghanistan. Smedinghoff was a second-tour public diplomacy officer who was part of a convoy that was delivering donated books to a new school in Zabul Province. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, which also killed three Afghans and wounded four State Department employees. (Another American died in a separate incident and 18 Afghans, including a Taliban commander and women and children were also killed in a U.S. airstrike over the weekend.) She is the first State Department Foreign Service Officer (FSO) to be killed in Afghanistan. (A USAID FSO was killed in August in a suicide bombing.)

A devastating loss like this one reverberates throughout the Foreign Service community. I never met Anne but a former colleague who served with her at the embassy in Kabul and also taught a course she took in Washington said she was “heartbreakingly young, and a nice, lovely person.”

Just last week they took part in a quiz night at the embassy with questions revolving around events that happened on or near Anne’s birthday. I lived in River Forest, the beautiful town just west of Chicago where Anne grew up for three years, and after reading about her life and career, I feel certain that we lost someone who epitomized all that is good about the Foreign Service.She joined the Service right out of college and volunteered to serve in Kabul after a tour in Venezuela. According to press reports, she wasn’t the type of person who wanted to remain in the safety of the compound. She looked forward to opportunities like the one that presented itself on Saturday and hoped to make a real impact during her year in the country, which was nearly over. Reporters praised her as someone who was responsive and easy to work with.

FSOs who serve in danger posts like Kabul and Baghdad often get plumb follow-on assignments to cushy posts but Anne actively bid on Algiers, despite the tenuous security situation there and the lack of creature comforts. According to a friend who was quoted in the Chicago Tribune, she felt that the places she was needed the most were the “scary” and “dangerous” places, not the posh ones.

She had a taste for adventure. Smedinghoff biked across the U.S. (to raise money for cancer research), Australia and from the Dead Sea to the Red Sea and she loved to travel. Her neighbors in River Forest have lined the block with white ribbons and American flags to honor her and her smiling face graced the front page of both the Chicago Sun Times and the Chicago Tribune Monday. The stories are a fitting tribute to her but it’s a shame that diplomats usually only make the news under tragic circumstances.

Most Americans have at least some awareness of the tremendous sacrifices that our soldiers and their families make for their country but comparatively few are familiar with the Foreign Service and the sacrifices that FSOs and their families make. People might imagine that diplomats spend the bulk of their careers mingling at cocktail parties in Tokyo or Paris but that isn’t the reality of today’s Foreign Service. Most officers spend the bulk of their careers in places most Americans wouldn’t dream of visiting, even on a brief trip, and these days, many are also being sent unarmed into war zones, where they are separated from friends and family members for a year.

I hope that the press coverage of Anne’s life and death somehow serves to remind Americans of the sacrifices that FSOs make for their country and I hope that it inspires, rather than scares off, other young Americans who might be interested in the Foreign Service because our country needs bright, adventurous, patriotic people like Anne representing us overseas.

Inevitably, her death will lead to more debate on whether unarmed diplomats should be serving in war zones, and FSOs in danger spots around the world will now be under even greater security restrictions, making it more difficult for them to be effective. And the security officials at the embassy who approved this trip will unfortunately have to live with the consequences, which will be a very heavy burden for them to carry.

But this isn’t a time for second-guessing; it’s a time for all of Anne’s friends, family members, colleagues and the entire Foreign Service community to grieve the loss of a bright star. The Foreign Service can be something of a dysfunctional bureaucracy but when tragedies like this happen, it unites everyone who has served, past and present. God bless Anne and her family and all those who are serving their country.

On Tuesday, the military identified the three soldiers killed in the same incident as Anne Smedinghoff as 24-year-old Staff Sgt. Christopher M. Ward of Oak Ridge, Tenn.; 25-year-old Spc. Wilbel A. Robles-Santa of Juncos, Puerto Rico; and 24-year-old Spc. Delfin M. Santos Jr. of San Jose, Calif. They were deployed with the 5th Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division.

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[Photo credit: Anne Smedinghoff’s Twitter]

A Traveler In The Foreign Service: What’s It Like To Work In The Foreign Commercial Service?

Janice Corbett has been a diplomat for more than 21 years. She has lived in South Korea, Spain, Ecuador, Brazil and Canada. She’s on a first name basis with several heads of state and has even met the King and Queen of Spain. Her lifestyle of international travel and adventure started in Cleveland, Ohio, of all places.

After getting an M.B.A., the Washington, D.C., native landed a job as a trade specialist at the U.S. Export Assistance Center in Cleveland and that led her to a career in the Department of Commerce’s Foreign Commercial Service. The United States and Foreign Commercial Service (USFCS) is one of four official Foreign Affairs Agencies employing some 1,400 trade professionals here and abroad and since we’ve talked to diplomats from State, USAID and USDA, plus a diplomatic courier, I thought it was high time we hear from someone at Commerce.

Janice Corbett is the Regional Director for Africa, the Near East, and South Asia (ANESA) with the U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service in Washington, with responsibility for 18 countries in a diverse region bounded by Morocco, South Africa, India, and Afghanistan. She is a career member of the Senior Foreign Service, class of Counselor.

Prior to her assignment in ANESA, Janice served as the U.S. Commercial Service Liaison to the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) where she assisted U.S. manufacturers to expand into new export markets. We caught up with Janice to find out about what it’s like to work in the Foreign Commercial Service.Why did you join the Foreign Service?

It was a dream that started when I was 16. I went to school in Southern France and I really loved the culture and loved learning how things work in different countries. I realized I had a knack for being in foreign environments and then as part of our exchange, we went to Paris, where I met a friend of a friend’s father, who was an economics officer at the U.S. Embassy and that solidified what I wanted to do.

How did you pursue that goal?

I earned a B.A. in International Studies from Miami University in Ohio and I earned an M.B.A. in marketing.

Why did you choose to pursue employment with the Department of Commerce, as opposed to State, USAID or one of the other foreign affairs agencies?

I thought there would be more opportunities in business and also I figured I could hedge my bet. If I couldn’t get into government, I could always go into business. I also saw the trend at the time. Commercial diplomacy was growing and trade was growing in importance. So it seemed like a timely thing to do.

How did you get the job?

I started at the U.S. Export Assistance Center in Cleveland, Ohio as a trade specialist. The U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service has U.S. offices and foreign offices. In the U.S. offices, trade specialists counsel U.S. companies, help them locate markets for their products and are challenged to find companies who may not be exporting and help them understand the rationale and advantages of exporting. And then we work with our colleagues in overseas offices to help them enter foreign markets.

And how did you transition into the Foreign Service?

I applied for the U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service exam. After being accepted, I took the U.S. and Foreign Service exam, which is a full-day oral and written exam. After I passed the exam, I was put on a wait list. In the meantime, I had applied for a temporary, limited appointment overseas, and was assigned to Korea for two years. While working as the Assistant Commercial Attaché in Seoul, I was pulled up on the list and was converted into the Foreign Service.

Is the process different now? Can anyone take the exam?

The applicant completes an initial online assessment, and if they pass, they take an in-person written and oral assessment. It’s equivalent to the State Department’s Oral Assessment. You need three years of specialized trade promotion experience, and a Bachelor’s degree.

We also have internships, so if students want to get experience, it would behoove them to apply for an internshipwith the Foreign Commercial Service.

Any other advice for people who want this job?

First of all, have a knack for languages. Study business and get as much experience as you can. And if you don’t get it the first time, keep trying.

At the State Department, FSOs start their careers in an introductory class called A-100, did you have something like that?

No. I landed and was assigned to manage a trade mission in Korea right away. However now the incoming officers have a very complete new officer training course.

Do Foreign Commercial Service Officers get paid language training?

Yes. I speak Spanish and Portuguese.

You served in South Korea, Spain, Ecuador, Mexico, Brazil and Canada. What is the bidding process like?

You have to submit bids on four jobs at your grade level along with a rationale of why you are bidding on that post and what you can offer the Service in those places. Generally, as junior officers our tours are 2 years and then 3-4 thereafter.

And are there directed assignments at Commerce, where FSOs are sent to a post they have not bid on?

It’s very rare.

But do FSOs from Commerce serve in Iraq and other war zones?

We serve where there are growth economies. We have postings in Iraq and other unaccompanied posts. We have officers in Baghdad now but not in Kabul. I’m single so all my postings are unaccompanied.

Tell us about some of the travel opportunities this career has given you over the years?

I traveled throughout Korea and I never would have had a chance to do that. I would never have known about theRoyal Asiatic Society, where I learned all Korea’s culture and history. I went to the Amazon in Brazil three times. We took a trade mission to the free trade zone in Manaus. I traveled throughout Brazil. It’s a fascinating country. There is so much to see and do in Spain, so when I was posted there, I traveled all over the country and was also fortunate to meet the King and Queen of Spain.

How did that happen?

I was the control officer for a delegation that came into town. It was an official meeting and we went to the palace and we were told what the protocol would be. The King and Queen came through the greeting line and greeted each one of us.

What are you supposed to do?

Bow and shake their hands.

What kind of people do you think thrive in this career?

People who like travel. People who like to work in international environments, manage people from different cultures. People who are curious about how things work in different countries. People who are open to learning and listening. People who get a thrill from helping U.S. companies. If you talk to people in the U.S. Foreign Commercial Service, the most satisfying part of the job is how we help American companies.

Are you helping everyone from really small businesses to big multinationals?

Correct. I’ve helped very small businesses get started in Mexico, Canada and other places and I’ve helped major multinationals get into markets as well. We not only help companies in an export capacity, we also help them reduce trade and regulatory barriers. We provide on the ground market intelligence. And we will weigh in with foreign governments to show them the advantage of using U.S. products and services.

It’s illegal for American companies to use bribes overseas but in many developing countries that is how companies do business. How do you help companies abide by the law but still get things done?

You meet with government officials and you talk about transparency. You talk about the advantages of U.S. products and services and then government officials know that we are watching those transactions.

What do you like about this job?

Every day is different. You are constantly being introduced to new things, new ways of doing business. I’ve met presidents of countries; in some cases, we’ve been on a first-name basis because I worked on so many issues with them. You’re dealing with ministers and other very high level people to get U.S. policy accomplished or to make sure there isn’t a trade barrier blocking a product entry, and also persuading them to procure U.S. products.

And what is the hardest part of this career choice? Being away from family and friends in the States?

That is the hardest part. I had to miss my nephew’s high school graduation because I had a secretarial visit to Mexico. I missed my brother’s retirement from the Navy because I was overseas. Also, it’s difficult when you have aging parents. I was living in Mexico when my parent’s health was failing, so I had to travel back once a quarter to take care of personal matters.

What other things have you enjoyed about the Foreign Service lifestyle?

I feel like I’ve grown as a person because of it. I’ve learned about different artists that I never would have known about. Literature, cultures. I danced in Carnival in Rio. I never would have done that if I hadn’t joined the Foreign Service. It’s an incredible career.

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[Photo credit: Department of Commerce]

A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Don’t Take Your Thanksgiving Turkey For Granted

For some Americans living overseas, finding a Thanksgiving turkey can be an ordeal. Not every American eats turkey on Thanksgiving Day, but when you live outside the country, these kinds of cherished American traditions can take on a sense of heightened importance to the point where re-creating an American style Thanksgiving dinner, even if you’re in Dushanbe or Khartoum, becomes an obsession.

My wife was the Community Liaison Officer, a job that some have described as a sort of cruise director, at the U.S. Embassy in Skopje, Macedonia, and finding turkeys there fell under her vague job description since it was considered a “morale issue.” Americans take for granted the ability to walk into any grocery store in the country and get what they need for a Thanksgiving dinner in ten minutes, but in many parts of the world, it can be a serious scavenger hunt to get the items you need.One year, when I was posted in Trinidad, I spent a ridiculous amount of time looking for Karo syrup for a pecan pie recipe. (I had no idea at the time that other recipes don’t require it) I must have visited every store in Port of Spain before I finally found a bottle and felt as though I’d scored a golden ticket for Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.

Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) and their family members have one luxury that most expats don’t – the ability to order products online and have them shipped to a U.S. address. Those who are at posts with an APO address can get things quickly, but everyone else has to wait anywhere from a week to a few weeks or more to get their mail. But no matter how you slice it, you still can’t order a turkey on

At the time we lived there, it was impossible to find turkeys for sale in Macedonia, and, unlike larger posts, we didn’t have a PX or a commissary that sold them, so my wife had to do some detective work and ultimately found a way to get birds from a military base in Kosovo and have them trucked down to Macedonia. It wasn’t as simple as driving over to the local Safeway but we probably appreciated them more.

With a little effort, expats can usually cobble together some semblance of a Thanksgiving meal but the hardest part of being overseas is having to spend the holiday season away from family and loved ones. I arrived at overseas posts for the first time shortly before Thanksgiving on three occasions: Skopje, Macedonia, Port of Spain, Trinidad, and Budapest, Hungary, and it’s always a little odd to arrive at a new post without any of your household effects or cookware before a holiday like Thanksgiving.

Even if you’re the most repellant jerk in the world, someone will invite you to Thanksgiving dinner. At some posts, the Ambassador will invite singles, newcomers and other strays to dinner and in others, people just informally make sure that no one is home alone without access to turkey meat unless they want to be.

In a way, it’s kind of a remarkable thing the way FSOs host fellow colleagues they barely know for this really important family holiday. Can you imagine having Thanksgiving dinner with a work colleague you barely know in the U.S.? We had kind souls host us in Port of Spain and Budapest and, in our first year in Skopje, I went to a meal hosted by the Ambassador. On other occasions, we introduced local friends to our favorite American holiday.

We were grateful for the invites we got, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that it can be a little depressing to spend Thanksgiving with a collection of people you don’t know well. No matter how good the company is, you can’t help but wish you were with your real family, rather than your Foreign Service one, which can feel very much like what I imagine a foster home experience is like. And I never had to serve in a combat zone, where Thanksgiving dinner means waiting in a buffet line with a tray.

There are lots of advantages to the Foreign Service lifestyle but being away from family members during holidays and important occasions is probably the biggest drawback. Those of us who are fortunate to be with family members and near readily available dead turkeys this year should raise a glass and toast members of the Foreign Service, the military and every other American that’s serving their country and dealing with ad-hoc bird meat and improvised company this year.

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[Photo credit: US Army Africa on Flickr]

Art In Embassies Celebrates Serving Abroad …Through Their Eyes

Art In Embassies
(AIE) is a program of the U.S. Department’s of State and Defense that promotes cross-cultural dialogue and understanding around the world through the visual arts, sponsoring dynamic artist exchanges. For five decades the public-private partnership program has played a big role in U.S. diplomacy. This month, in commemoration of Veterans Day, the AIE program announced the 12 “Best in Show” photographs featured in AIE’s 50th anniversary “Serving Abroad…Through Their Eyes photography exhibition.

Last year on Veterans Day, military, civil service and Foreign Service personnel were invited to submit photographs illustrating their life while serving abroad. Over 3,200 images were submitted, 161 finalists were chosen then the 12 “Best in Show” were identified.

“These photographs depict themes of friendship, places, faces, loss or triumph, providing a window on the complexity, diversity and courageous work performed by America’s heroes throughout the world,” said the U.S. Department of State in a release.

Today, AIE engages 20,000 artists, museums, galleries, universities and private collectors in more than 200 venues in 189 countries. Over 58 permanent collections have been installed in State Department facilities throughout the world.

See all the finalists here

In the video below we see artist Tom Gosford talking about the installation of his work in the U.S. Tijuana consulate, and a look at the Art in Embassies exhibition in the consulate.

The AIE 50th anniversary celebration features U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton honoring five artists on November 30, presenting the first U.S. Department of State Medal of Arts for their outstanding commitment to the program.

[Photo Credit: U.S. Department of State]